PJ and I recently saw The Hurt Locker, a movie about a bomb squad in Iraq. Kathryn Bigelow directed this script by Mark Boal, who was a war correspondent in Iraq during the war. The movie is informed by his observations while there. Here’s the trailer:

I’m surprised by my reaction to this movie: I really liked it. I wanted to see it since it’s an Oscar contender, but I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Until I watched it. Now I think it’s one of the best films of 2009. Thrilling, suspenseful, and insightful, it’s well-directed, well written, and well acted.

The movie begins with a scene in which the bomb squad is trying to detonate an improvised explosive device. This scene is completely riveting and suspenseful. One of the things we learn from this scene is that things can go wrong quickly on the streets of Iraq, and the surviving characters have to come to terms with the death of a comrade.

Jeremy Renner as William James, the replacement for the squad’s former team leader. He quickly comes across as a modern-day Hawkeye Pierce. Like that character from M*A*S*H, James doesn’t do things by the book. Dismissive of procedures and regulations, he wants to do his job without impediments and do it well. He’s also a great guy who gets along with others, including an Iraqi boy who sells bootleg DVDs on the military base. But the longer we “know” Sergeant James, the most he seems to be losing it. Initially this seems to be the effects of the life-and-death demands of his job. By the end of the movie, we see that there’s another reason for his increasingly irrational behavior.

Renner does a great job with this part. One of his biggest roles before The Hurt Locker was as Jeffrey Dahmer. This suggests he has a lot of range as an actor, and he certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, if he gets one.

The actors playing his squad mates are also really good. Anthony Mackie plays Sergeant Sanborn, the most grounded member of the group. He mostly just wants to make it back home alive and in one piece. Mackie is excellent in this role; I don’t know why he hasn’t gotten more Oscar talk. Brian Geraghty plays Specialist Eldridge, who suffers from guilt and anxiety through much of the film. He’s the least able to deal with the pressures of make split-second life and death decisions. He’s sort of the little brother the other men try to teach and protect.

The Hurt Locker was filmed in Jordan, which gives it a sense of authenticity that elevates all of the tension and suspense. The characters’ sweat, for example, rolls off their bodies in a way that emphasizes the heat and the pressure of being in the Middle East. The movie isn’t shot to be beautiful, but I couldn’t help but be amazed by the beauty of some of the landscape. It makes the death and explosions all the more horrifying.

Most of the movie is shot with a hand-held camera reporter style. This, too, gives the film a sense of authenticity and harkens back to Boal’s experience in Iraq. I thought the direction and editing were both excellent. I hope Bigelow wins the Best Director Oscar. Her work here is great.

All in all, I really like this movie. PJ was underwhelmed by it, but I think it makes a great statement about war. Initially, the movie seems to be about these three men, but by the end we see that it’s about a lot more. These men, and Renner’s character in particular, are just stand-ins for the United States and our attitudes toward and addiction to war. It’s a great movie.